Jamie Iredell launches his lyrical new memoir with a catechism about himself and his family: He is Catholic, born and raised. Everyone in his family is either Catholic or converted to Catholicism — brother and sister, grandmother and grandfather, uncles, aunts, cousins. Being Catholic makes Iredell feel guilty, especially about sex.
Cut to the First Station of the Cross, the first of 14 that anchor “Last Mass,” the author’s confessional, often anguished attempt to wrestle himself free of that lingering Catholic guilt, a book-length meditation about growing up Catholic crossed with a history of California, Iredell’s home state.
Specifically, the book tells the story of Father Junipero Serra, born 1713 — a Franciscan priest responsible for founding nine missions that would later become California’s principal cities — and the subject of a historical novel Iredell planned to write while tucked away in monk-like solitude at a north Georgia literary retreat.
Iredell, who now lives in Atlanta, has written before about growing up Catholic, as well as about his problems with alcohol — notably in his last collection of personal essays, “I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac.” Here, these conflicts inform a struggle that comes closer to the progress of the soul, beginning with a panic attack and night terrors.
A mere “twelve pack of PBR” soothes his nerves at first; on his third day in the mountains, he adds more booze to his stash: “a case of beer, a few bottles of white and red wine [and] liquor.” By day 11, the supplies have reached siege level: “I had so far consumed 115 beers, a fifth of Makers Mark, a fifth of Kettle One, half a bottle of Martini and Rossi dry vermouth, a fifth of Cazadores Tequila, and five bottles of wine.”
Though the task of compiling his two years of research “seemed an insurmountable bear,” Iredell, who has also written two novels (“The Book of Freaks,” “Prose. Poems. A Novel”), eventually braids two origin stories: his own and another about Serra and his fellow Spanish friars, their murderous zeal to convert California’s Indians, and the enslavement and wiping out of indigenous culture.
At first glance, Iredell’s memoir appears to be a collection of random associations, loosely connected and grounded by historical and biographical anecdotes about Serra; examples of Catholic doctrine such as the Annunciation, teachings of Catechism and the Seven Sacraments; and the author’s memories of growing up in Carmel, many of them revolving around the church’s training and rituals.
There are no chapters or divisions. Instead, Iredell presents a rich, nonlinear collage of references to history, legends, memories and popular culture. To name a few:
• Iredell’s memory of the children’s book, “Where Did I Come From” and his parents’ copy of “The Joy of Sex”
• examples of the extermination of the California grizzly through exploitation and overhunting
• scenes from the movies “Star Wars,” “Snatch,” “Saturday Night Fever,” and “Turner and Hooch”
• a confession of witchcraft from a Mexican peasant obtained by Father Serra using skills he learned while working as an agent of the Spanish Inquisition
• tales of Iredell’s adventures as a YMCA Indian guide of the faux Chumash “tribe”
• a reference to game three between the San Francisco Giants’ and the Philadelphia Phillies during the 2010 National League Championship Series
Iredell invites the reader to follow along as he digs beneath the surface of his belief system (and by extension, questions the morality of the church in general), debunks the hagiography surrounding the man called “California’s founding father,” and describes in sorrowful detail the loss of nearly half the state’s missionized Indians to hard labor, disease, torture and starvation.
Iredell’s powerful voice is the organizing force of “Last Mass.” By turns skeptical, inquisitive, searching, self-deprecating, down-to-earth and occasionally surreal, he’s our expert guide to the names, languages, diets, and ritual dances of California’s native population. He’s the resident doubting Thomas whose challenges to the imagery of the Stations of the Cross (“Who came up with this story about Jesus falling three times?”) emphasize the unreliability of religious doctrine.
“Myth making art making myth is legend is religion,” Iredell says, noting the unlikely setting in classical paintings of the Immaculate Conception, in which lavishly robed Mary, the poor carpenter’s wife, sits on a throne with nothing to do, “as opposed to the likelihood,” he adds, “that she had little time to herself.” Seeing that “a cat naps upon a pillow in the foreground,” Iredell takes it one irreverent step further: “Did Jesus know this cat while growing up?”
And by framing some of Serra’s most troubling behaviors as all-too-human, Iredell becomes his alternate biographer. Juxtaposing the priest’s overconcern for a young Indian boy, for instance, with his own childhood memories of a neighborhood pedophile, he then bears witness to the tender care Serra devoted to the child when sick, leaving the reader to connect the dots.
Toward the end of the book, Iredell describes his feelings as he types up his manuscript: “I felt that I’d overcome a mountain, that I’d run up it, and I’d run back down.”
He returns with the grail: A requiem for the Catholicism of his boyhood, a prayer to the meaning still to be found in his faith, and a mountain-style song-of-songs that pays glorious tribute to a lost world at the same time it teaches us how to live in the one we have left.